Former premiers offer thoughts on education

Someone in the audience at last Thursday’s James S. Palmer Lecture commented that the reason three speakers were invited was because it took all three to reach the prestige of such previous guests as Mikhail Gorbachev and Noam Chomsky. However, former Canadian premiers Peter Lougheed (Conservative, Alberta, 1971-85), Frank McKenna (Liberal, New Brunswick, 1987-97) and Bob Rae (New Democrat, Ontario, 1990-95) represent three areas of the political spectrum and formed an impressive triumverate when they presented their thoughts on investing in education and the role of the university in the community.

The common thread to the three speeches was that universities need to assert themselves within the community and join the twenty-first century in terms of both structure and education.

Rae began by comparing the education system to the health care system.While he puts equal importance on both, he pointed out the urgency of health care compared to education.

“There is a difference in the immediacy between the call that you get from the emergency room saying ‘we’re running out of space, we’re running out of beds, and we have to do something,’ and the urgency that you get in the phone call from a president’s office at a university saying ‘we have a very serious question about the kinds of opportunities that are going to be there for our younger people,'” said Rae.

Rae stressed that universities need to emphasize more how investment in education makes a difference in society.

“Universities need to make a stronger case about the connection between investment in universities and the capacity for innovation in our society,” he stated. “The greatest thing we can expect of our universities is this capacity to help us to innovate and to help us as individuals to be creative.”

Finally, Rae criticized the conservative tendencies of universities.

“With this capacity to innovate and this capacity to think and to be creative, the university itself has to come to terms with the fact that it has become one of the most conservative institutions in the world,” Rae stated. “Universities have to show a greater degree of engagement with the public and show a greater capacity for change internally.”

Like Rae, former University of Calgary student and instructor Peter Lougheed began by comparing education with health care, saying that the latter carries more immediacy, but that the former is more of an investment.

“I always looked at the issue of post-secondary education from an investment point of view,” Lougheed said, “because I felt that what it involved was investing in the future of our young people and investing in the future of our province.”

Lougheed suggested that universities need to be more adaptable, but not strictly in terms of moving in a technological direction.

“We’re in a knowledge era and a technological time,” he said. “I’m of the view that the university should be careful about the balance between the science and technical side of the university and the humanities and the arts. Be careful that you don’t swing the pendulum too much in terms of what one might call this knowledge field of technology.”

Lougheed pointed out the difference between specialists who are very good at one thing and generalists who are able to move between areas of knowledge. He feels that our society is too focused on those with one concentration, but while he encourages generalization among individuals, he feels universities could be geared toward specialization.

“I am concerned with the duplication that may not be necessary between our various universities,” he said. “There isn’t enough real effort made to say ‘here’s a strength here, let that university emphasize that subject.'”

Lougheed concluded by expressing the university’s place within the community.

“I think that a university, in addition to its obvious responsibility in graduating talented people and skilled people, has another responsibility,” he said. “This city needs to have an intellectual centre and the university has to provide it. There should not be a remoteness from the city at large and the community at large.”

Like both Rae and Lougheed, Frank McKenna complained that universities are too anachronistic in their structure. As the centre of thought, universities should be able to exact change, but their structure makes it nearly impossible.

“The university community, of all the institutions that we have, should be the agent of change in our society,” McKenna stated. “But because of an archaic or outmoded method of governance, they are unable to re-vector quickly enough to deal with contingencies.”

If universities are able to adapt themselves to our current society, McKenna believes that they have a invaluable place in the future.

“The great cities of the past were cities that were built around places where people ended up doing commerce or business,” he said. “The great cities of the future are going to be built around knowledge because the economy that we are in now is truly a knowledge-driven economy.”